Feb 092013

I’ve been reading All I Really Need to Know (about Creative Thinking) I Learned (by Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten, by Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media lab. This was the suggested reading for the first session of the Learning Creative Learning online course.

This paper argues that the “kindergarten approach to learning” – characterized by a spiraling cycle of Imagine, Create, Play, Share, Reflect, and back to Imagine – is ideally suited to the needs of the 21st century, helping learners develop the creative-thinking skills that are critical to success and satisfaction in today’s society. The paper discusses strategies for designing new technologies that encourage and support kindergarten-style learning, building on the success of traditional kindergarten materials and activities, but extending to learners of all ages, helping them continue to develop as creative thinkers.

Resnick's image of kindergarten learning

Resnick’s image of kindergarten learning

Resnick is referring to the kind of kindergarten where kids are not “filling out phonics worksheets and memorizing flash cards” — more like the one I remember, with huge wooden blocks, a full-size rolltop desk, and nothing that I can recall as an effort to get me ready for the LSAT.

His diagram’s a spiral because the steps in this process aren’t as distinct or sequential as describing or depicting them might imply.

It’s through this process that kindergarteners “develop and refine their abilities as creating thinkers.” And, as they grow, they need resources beyond wooden blocks and finger paint.

I like his stress on little-c creativity (“creativity within one’s personal life”). Not everyone’s going to be the next Freeman Dyson or Linus Torvalds, but everyone can “become more creative in the ways they deal with everyday problems.”

In the Imagine section, he points out that many kindergarten materials encourage the imagination–they don’t over-structure. By contrast, a lot of “education technologies are overly constrained” — you can only do what they’re set up to do.

It’s like all that fun drill and practice.

He offers the example of Crickets, which I hadn’t heard of: small programmable devices, suited to children, that they can interconnect, modify, and program. Don’t take my word for it, though:

In the article, he says:

The design challenge is to develop features specific enough so that children can quickly learn how to use them, but general enough so that children can contine to imagine new ways to use them.

For some reason, this reminded me of explanations of “simple machines” in long-ago science classes–things like inclined planes, wedges, screws, and pulleys. I’d been told that a screw was a kind of inclined plane, but when it came to pulleys, I don’t think we ever actually rigged up a bunch of pulleys to experience how the right combination would let us lift a load we otherwise could not.

While reading the Create section, I read this line three times:

With Mindstorms and Crickets, for example, children can create dynamic, interactive constructions — and, in the process, learn concepts related to sensing, feedback, and control.

It’s the last part that got me. What it brought to mind was the first course I wrote in the computer-based training system we used for reservations training at Amtrak. Things I had learned about learning (like using a minimalist approach, or providing feedback without giving away the answer) clicked. I could create a course that would help someone learn how to request and interpret train schedules–and I wouldn’t have to be there when that happened.

Resnick says (sensibly) that playing and learning ought to be linked. “Each at its best involves…experimentation, exploration, and testing.” This is part of why he disliked “edutainment” (and not just for its overripe, marketeerish name).

Studios, directors, and actors provide you with entertainment; schools and teachers provide you with education… In all of these cases, you are viewed as a passive recipient. If we are trying to help children develop as creative thinkers, it is more productive to focus on “play” and “learning” (things you do) rather than “entertainment” and “education” (things that others provide for you).

Also in this section, he mentions Scratch, a programmable language that kids can use to create interactive stories. I haven’t gone into this, but just the illustrations of the code remind me of the MIT App Inventor that I used to build a smartphone app (touch a picture of a cat, hear a purring sound, after which the image changes to a cow).

A scrap of Scratch


Say meow, then switch to the cow.

Scratch is one way that Resnick’s article moves into the Share section. He quotes Marvin Minsky as saying that the Logo programming language has great grammar but not much literature.

So the Scratch website is an example of “both inspiration and audience.” And, in my way of thinking, if that’s not what you want to share, you at least see how sharing can happen.

Resnick is talking about children, but I come to this from a career mostly involving helping adults to learn. And perhaps the single biggest drawback to learning in the workplace (well, after you get past icebreakers and listening-as-learning and endless recordkeeping) is the dearth of support for reflection.

What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How’s it going? What do you think made that happen (for all kinds of outcomes)?

A colleague I respect recently said he’s decided to propose his first professional-conference presentation. I was surprised that he hadn’t presented already, but no matter. I can recall the first one I did. I wanted to share with people, but I was nearly paralyzed by the idea that I didn’t have all that much to say.

And you know, maybe I didn’t, depending on what measurements you choose.

What I did have was my particular experience (using a complex computer-based training system) combined with the data-based, lean approach to helping people improve, which I’d learned from folks like Geary Rummler and Dale Brethower.

My point is that thinking about what I’d been doing, and trying to uncover value it might have for other people, helped me see the everyday in a new light. That’s the goal of useful reflection.

* * *

I’ve written this post both to help me process the ideas in Resnick’s articles and to set down thoughts of my own. In addition, I found myself noting in a separate document things I wanted to know more about (like Crickets, epistemic games, and Lev Vygotsky). To me those were sidelights; I might discuss them one on one, but this post is plenty long as is.


  3 Responses to “Mitchel Resnick’s “Kindergarten Thinking””

  1. Found you through @medialabcourse.

    I like your reflections. You’ve inspired me!

  2. thanks a lot for your notes. For me, with lack of time to follow the entire course, it is very nice to read and to be superficially aware of what is going on. Good luck with the course.

  3. Thieme: I’m not sure that my notes are going to give anyone even a superficial idea of what’s going on. ;-)

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